This blog series is a #My500Words writing challenge. I will be sharing one photograph and the story belonging to it each day for 31 days around the theme of “Oh the places I’ve been…” These are meant to be letters to my three girls about the places I have been, the adventures I have had and the lessons I have learned along the way.
My Dearest Girls,
Have I ever told you about my first trip out of the country? It was to a place called Malawi in East Africa. How and why did I pick Malawi as my first overseas trip? Good question, girls! 🙂
One day, when I was 16, I received a colorful brochure in the mail advertising “summer mission trips” with an organization that sends groups of teenagers all over the world to “get dirty for God” over the summer. There were exotic destinations like Tahiti and Papua New Guinea and Russia. Reading it suddenly made me really want to travel the world and “do hard things for God.” I had never considered traveling overseas up to this point.
My first choice of a trip was Mt. Kilimanjaro. Yes, the very mountain I just climbed this year, 21 years after I checked that little box and sent in my “trip request.” The Kilimanjaro team was all about hiking to the remote villages around the mountain and evangelizing through drama presentations. I picked Malawi B&V (basketball and volleyball evangelism*) as my second choice and I don’t remember my 3rd choice. I sent off the application to the organization and started dreaming of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
My acceptance letter came back letting me know that Kilimanjaro had already filled up and they put me on the Malawi team. My best friend, Carrie, who applied for all the same places got placed on the Malawi team as well. We were somewhat disappointed about Kilimanjaro, but ecstatic that we were on the same team.
But, where the heck was Malawi? I had never heard of it before reading about the team on the brochure. And I only picked it because I was a basketball player and it just made sense. This country was barely recognizable on the map, but I started telling anyone and everyone who would listen about my upcoming adventure. I got my first passport and 500 vaccines (just kidding, it was like 10 or so) and persuaded people to give me lots of money to pay for this trip because of all the good it would do ME, and all the good I would do THEM (the Africans we were going to help). (Remember how I talked about how I feel about short term mission trips now? )
*Please note that I feel very strongly that these kinds of “evangelism” techniques are not only flat out wrong, but harmful as well. I think it is a slap in the face of God to reduce Him to painted faces and silly skits in the presence of people of another color, race, ethnicity or culture. Real and healthy evangelism is not done with words or mimes or jokes, it is done through deeds and long-haul service and humbly living out God’s love in service of another. In the infamous words of St. Francis of Assisi (which weren’t really his actual words at all, but the sentiment is true), “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
After a couple of weeks at a training camp in Florida, our motley crew of about 30 (leaders and teenagers) arrived to the organization’s property near Lake Malawi, the second largest lake in Africa. We set up our tents, and over the next 4 weeks fell into a routine of waking up with the sun, driving the mile to the Lake and hauling 5 gallon buckets of water to fill 50 gallon drums that would then be purified through a hand pump for our drinking and cooking water, breakfast, morning devotions, working around the property, afternoon “classes”, chores around camp, dinner, evening devotions, sleep. At one point we drove into some town and did one basketball and volleyball presentation. And the last week of our time there was spent running a youth camp for Malawian teenagers. It was modeled on the time our team spent in the USA right before flying overseas, to prepare for our trip… obstacle courses, lots of Bible lessons, work projects etc.
Some of the highlights of this trip, for me, included:
- watching the sun rise on the lake each morning.
- sleeping in tents all summer.
- the brilliant Malawian night sky with more stars than I have ever seen.
- meeting teenagers like me and getting to know them just a bit. Especially Stella. (photo)
- seeing a completely different culture than my own.
- seeing hippos up close (scary!) in the lake.
- reading my Bible each day and feeling like God was speaking to me each and every day.
- trying local foods.
- learning some songs and phrases in Chichewa.
- getting lost in the bush with a couple of my teammates and then getting found (exhilarating but very dangerous).
- squatty potties – yes it was such an adventure to have to squat over a hole in the ground for 5 weeks.
- making friends for life (I am still in contact with about 3-4 of the people on this team today)
- the singing, oh the singing!
This is Stella. She adopted me for that week of youth camp. She taught me Chichewa. She opened my eyes to the beauty that is the African girl/woman. Her smile and voice will forever stay with me. My eyes are red and puffy from sobbing in her arms after dancing to the music with her and so many others. I wanted to be her friend forever. I thought we had so much in common. But I got to get on a jet and fly back to America. I got to return to my “normal” life. She continued to live the life that I was so enamored with… the “adventure” of no electricity, of walking alone in the night (a dangerous thing) with no lights, of carrying water not to purify but just to drink, of working hard just to feed herself and exist. I wrote a story for the ONE Campaign about Stella and this trip to Africa for their “Electrify Africa” campaign in 2015. I hope you will read it.
I debated sharing a photo of beautiful Lake Malawi, but in truth the most beautiful part of Malawi was the people. By a landslide. Sometimes you travel somewhere because you want the adventure and you want to see larger than life lakes and mountains and spectacular vistas, but do me a favor and look for the people. Get to know the people in the places you go, girls. Learn from someone your own age from another culture. Learn from someone wiser and older than you. See the beauty and the pain in their life. You won’t really understand a place until you meet its people.
I won’t lie… this trip completely changed my life, cliche and all. I feel like I was reborn on this trip. Like I came alive in a way I had never experienced before. I cried harder than I have ever cried in my life when we had to say goodbye to the teens we had gotten to know and the other leaders who were from Malawi or other local countries.
I learned that I not only loved being in Malawi, but THRIVED on this trip… the tent living, water carrying, night star gazing, cross-cultural atmosphere. This is where my love for all things global and cross-cultural was born. This is where the seed was planted that landed me at John Brown University 6 years later pursuing a degree in Intercultural Studies. This trip, this experience laid the foundation for who I became over the next two decades.
I also have painful memories of this trip… How the presence of 20 something American teenagers as “teachers” to the Malawian teens, rather than peers, must of felt to the local teens. How our group took away precious jobs from locals as we tried to “make bricks” and build things that only locals should have been building. How we collectively raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for us to fly over to Africa and “serve the Lord” when the money could have been used in much more sustainable ways to do long-term good in the region. And more.
So much good and so much harm wrapped up in the same experience. I can’t escape the cringe-worthy memories, but I also can’t escape the fact that I am so thankful for this experience that was the basis for an entire new focus and vision for my life. But this is real life, girls…. the good mixed in with the bad. In Glennon Doyle Melton’s words, “the beautiful and the brutal… brutiful.” May we have the grace to learn and grow from all of it.
Day 4 – 1227 words